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Tad Szulc; Foreign Correspondent Broke Bay of Pigs Invasion Story

May 22, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tad Szulc, a distinguished foreign correspondent for the New York Times who broke the story of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and later wrote an important biography of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, died of cancer Monday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 74.

Szulc (pronounced Schulz) was diagnosed in 1999 with colon cancer, which spread to his liver and lungs. On March 25, he wrote in an article for Parade magazine about how the diagnosis "incurable cancer" gave him "a curious sense of calm."

"I've had a marvelous life," he wrote. "Married for 52 years, two kids, a grandchild, worked in 91 countries, published 20 books. I've had a fantastic time, always. Perhaps that is why I am able to have hope now, to live with cancer as fully as possible. Life is too dear to waste it worrying about the unknown."

Szulc, who spoke seven languages, covered the rise of the United Nations for United Press from 1949 to 1953, then joined the New York Times.

In the next two decades, he reported from Southeast Asia, Latin America, Portugal, Spain, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Washington, witnessing some of history's most wrenching moments, including the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Cuban revolution.

He later turned to freelance writing, crafting informative magazine articles and books on foreign policy and the world leaders who fashioned it. Notably, he wrote what many consider the definitive biography of Castro, "Fidel, a Critical Portrait," in 1986.

Szulc's outstanding reporting skills--which led to him being ousted from Portugal and Czechoslovakia and having his phone tapped during the Richard Nixon administration--extended not only to nonfiction books but also to novels. He wrote the only interview with Pope John Paul II published in an American magazine (Parade), went on to write a biography about him and recently published the novel, "To Kill the Pope."

"Fiction is essentially storytelling in the same sense as reporting on a war, a revolution, a diplomatic negotiation--or a fire," he once said.

Szulc undoubtedly made his greatest contribution to journalism and to history with his insight into Castro.

He first met the Cuban leader in 1959 at the time of the revolution, and spent many all-night sessions with him over the next two years and again in the mid-1980s, when he returned to Havana to chronicle Castro's life.

Universally credited with breaking the news story of the planned Bay of Pigs invasion meant to overthrow Castro, Szulc wrote a front-page New York Times article published April 7, 1961, under the headline "Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases." Szulc had included references to the CIA and predicted the probable date for invasion as April 18--two items excised by then-editor Turner Catledge.

The ill-fated invasion occurred on April 17, resulting in 114 dead, 1,000 captives and international scorn for the John F. Kennedy administration.

"I don't want to take credit for more than I did," Szulc once said. "It had been published some months earlier that Cuban exiles were being trained in Guatemala for something of this kind. My contribution was to say that this something was being set in motion and when and how it would occur. In that sense, it's fair to say that I did break the story."

The Nation magazine had first mentioned the Guatemala training in November 1960, and within a few weeks, the Los Angeles Times and other publications ran similar accounts. The New York Times followed suit in January 1961.

That Easter, Szulc, visiting friends in Miami, learned that the training had shifted to Florida and that an invasion of Cuba was imminent. Fearful of being overheard if he telephoned, Szulc flew to New York to talk with Catledge and soon-to-be publisher Orville Dryfoos.

"I was told to start a war bureau," Szulc said later.

Szulc did not see Castro again until 1984, when he returned to Cuba to do a magazine piece. Realizing that the leader's memory was dimming, he broached the subject of a biography and soon had permission to move to Cuba.

The subsequent book made front-page news throughout the United States with such revelations that the CIA had secretly funded Castro's 26th of July Movement in the 1950s to help overthrow then-Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

"Szulc," said Jorge G. Casteneda in a Los Angeles Times review of the biography in 1986, "has sketched a meticulously honest, painstakingly detailed and essentially complete portrait of the revolutionary."

Szulc seemed to have a knack for being in the right place when an international crisis struck.

In July 1968, he and his family were on the East Coast on home leave when Szulc began to feel apprehensive about rising tensions back in Prague. "I got very nervous," he recalled in a 1988 interview, "and didn't want to be away, so I went back to Prague on a Thursday, and the invasion came on the following Tuesday. I would have hated myself forever had I been on Cape Cod at that time."

Born in Warsaw, Szulc left Poland as a boy to attend the Swiss prep school Le Rosey. When World War II broke out, his family moved him to France until the German occupation, and then to Brazil.

He studied at the University of Brazil for two years before becoming a reporter for the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro in 1945. Two years later, he came to New York, where he met his future wife, Marianne Carr. He became an American citizen in 1954.

Szulc is survived by his wife, their two children, Nicole Ginn of Wales and Anthony of Washington, and a grandson.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 7 at the Cosmos Club in Washington. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the American Cancer Society.

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